Care and Feeding
Fall planting—September or October—allows garlic cloves to develop a robust root system, though gardeners in southern states may have better results planting in late winter for summer harvest. After planting, a few leaves may sprout from the clove, but they stop growing when cold weather arrives.
Grow garlic in a spot that gets full sun and has loose, crumbly soil. Compacted soil produces irregularly shaped bulbs; soil that retains water, especially during the winter, will cause bulbs to rot. Improve the soil's fertility and texture by working in 1 to 2 inches of organic compost or aged manure before planting.
To prepare garlic for planting, split the bulb into cloves, leaving their papery coverings intact. Choose only those that are firm and free of brown spots and damage." The secret with garlic is to plant the biggest cloves," says nurseryman Ted Biernacki of Ted's Greenhouse in Tinley Park, Illinois, for the simple reason that big cloves develop into large heads of garlic. Plant each clove with the pointed growing tip up and the flat root end down. In areas with mild winters, set the cloves about 1 to 2 inches deep. Where winters are severe, plant the cloves 2 to 4 inches deep. Space them 4 to 6 inches apart in the row with 12 inches between rows. Spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of straw over the planting area to help keep the soil moist and winter weeds in check. Keep the cloves watered for about 3 weeks after planting to aid root growth.
Longer spring days and warm weather help initiate bulb and top growth. Each green leaf represents one layer of the bulb's papery outer wrapper. The leaves will grow a foot or more, and it is critical to keep the soil evenly moist during this period of active growth, because dry soil will inhibit bulb enlargement. In early spring, spray the foliage with dilute liquid fish emulsion. There is no need to fertilize after May, because the extra nutrients will encourage leaf production at the expense of bulb size. When the leaves begin to yellow in summer, hold off on watering to prevent rot.